Andy Marsh, managing director of Suiko, explores the difference between being lean and achieving excellence.

Businesses that have survived the recent economic pressures have no doubt been forced to improve and embrace a leaner mind set. In our experience, this has inevitably focused on cost reduction. Many organisations will have embarked on improvement programmes that have reshaped the ways of working and also developed in house improvement capabilities. They will have understood the relationship between the sustainability of their results and their ways of working (the practices).

And for the vast majority of businesses that tick these boxes, the focus remains on the primary physical processes where value is added and the waste is most visible.

However, with the economic climate now looking much rosier, many organisations are starting to fall into the trap of thinking that they are lean because they have lean expertise and a dedicated resource. There is much to be said for kick starting the process; however we consider this one of the earlier steps of the operational excellence journey. There is still a long way to go.

The first principle of lean is to create customer value in order to achieve a competitive advantage. Organisations that achieve a level of stability in the primary processes will generate far greater business benefits in terms of cost, profit and cash in the long run, through the development of wider business thinking or end-to-end thinking.

This does however require true common agendas, and aligned thinking, especially at the most senior levels. You can never over do the fundamental principles of the operational excellence journey, but what is excellence, I hear you say?

Well, I consider excellence could be called lean. Lean is a pursuit and an addiction – the leaner you get – the more opportunity you see to get leaner. This leads to pushing conventional thinking to a new level, challenging not only primary processes, but also those indirect activities needed to run the business.

The activities take investment in time and resource, and may never get started without a strong foundation. There is also an element of the more you do the better you get. The better you get, the more you see, and the more you want to do.

Establishing a framework to get started usually presents a few problems. The first step involves understanding where you are and gaining a commitment to be somewhere else. Once the timing, resource and budgets are agreed, the tools and the methods are the easiest things to deploy. Changing behaviours is usually the most difficult.

There’s no other way to say it – achieving excellence takes time and is far from easy. But in our experience nothing in life or business really worth having is given to you on a plate. It takes hard work and unfaltering commitment to make it happen.

In my opinion, ‘excellence’ sounds better than ‘lean’, but really they are in fact the same thing – and neither should be properly contemplated without considering the whole value stream.